The Serious Business of Play

byMoshe Shtuhl, Ph.D.

Imagine studying and working hard, late at night, on an important proposal at work. You are not highly interested in the subject, but success on this proposal will increase your chances of an important promotion at work. You find that your attention often wanders but you are determined to complete the review chapter, plowing through it with determination and will power. Now imagine engaging in an activity that you love, maybe your hobby. You are totally engrossed in it, time flies and though you do a lot, it all seems effortless and fun because you are “playing”.

Both situations involve learning and developing new skills. But they also differ in one important aspect; In the first we utilize what is often called “disciplined attention”, an effortful process driven by a goal (succeeding on the proposal, complying with your boss’s expectations). In the second activity the process is solely guided by intrinsic interest in the activity and is effortless and fun.

This distinction between “work” and “play” can help describe a gradual but pronounced change in early education, from emphasis on providing ample opportunities to play with peers to academic teaching (learning letters, important facts, numbers, etc). The thinking goes that in order to be competitive with other students or in a global economy one needs to have a head start with reading and other academic learning. Based on this belief, early exposure to pre-reading skills, for example, offers an advantage to some students, especially to those who might be at risk of falling behind in reading. Furthermore, reading opens a whole world of exciting stories and content. To achieve a head start, one should emphasize disciplined work of learning early on over the luxury of fun play.

No sweat, no gain? Right?

Not quite. Researchers of evolution point to the fact that children in all cultures love to play and spend significant time doing this. In the thinking of Evolutionary Psychology, since the activity of “childhood play” has persisted over the millenniums and across all cultures, it must serve an important function. And indeed a growing body of child development research helps us understand how different types of play support numerous aspects of development such as emotional regulation, thinking, social competence, language and more. In other words play prepares children to life.

Here are a few examples;

  • Experimenting with social roles: A child practices the role of the nurturer by pretending to feed a baby doll, and later is a worrier admired by all.
  • Coping with Anxiety: An anxious child learns to cope with his anxiety by being assertive, pretending to trick the threatening bad witch.
  • Language and cognition: A child participates in a back and forth dialogue and creates a complex tapestry of a story, with challenges and problem solving. She needs to maintain the perspective of the characters and respond within the growing context of the story.
  • Behaving based on strict rules: A child engages in a game with rules and learns to follow the rules even when it is distressing (like when one loses). If conflicts arise, he works on resolving them through a dialogue.

The evidence of the importance of play is vast. It seems to suggest that emphasizing academic learning in preschools and in early grade school, at the expense of time for play (such as by spending most afternoons doing homework or even removing or limiting recess during school) might have gone too far. And the serious business of children’s play should regain its centrality in the minds of all parents and educators. Luckily, for many children, parents just need to make sure that their kids have the time, the safe place, the peers to play with (and appropriate supervision), and the children will take it from there. Other children might need more support to help them succeed in peer interaction and play (a topic to be further elaborated on in one of our future newsletters).